Food Deserts and Cuts to SNAP Create a Recipe for Disaster

By: Corey Peterson

At a time when India is enacting legislation deeming food security a right of citizens instead of just a measure taken by the government, our own government is failing to provide nutrition to our most vulnerable populations.

More than 47 million Americans, which is approximately one in every six, who receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or “food stamps,” had their benefits cut earlier this month. Nearly two-thirds of these 47 million Americans are children, disabled or elderly.

According to the Department of Agriculture, the purpose of SNAP is to “provide nutrition assistance benefits and nutrition educational services to low-income individuals and families.” SNAP not only directly benefits low-income Americans, but for every one dollar spent in SNAP benefits, an additional $1.84 is produced in economic activity. In 2009 the government anticipated that a $20 billion increase in SNAP benefits as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as the “stimulus package,” would create nearly $36.8 billion in economic activity.

Despite these benefits, SNAP funding has been cut by nearly $5 billion in the 2014 fiscal year due to the expiration of the ARRA this month. These cuts translate to an average loss of $29 a month for a family of three, or $319 for the remainder of the fiscal year. While a reduction of a few hundred dollars over the course of eleven months may not seem substantial, for a family of three this leaves less than $1.40 for each person, including growing children, per meal. Stacey Dean, Vice President for Food Assistance Policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explained that these cuts mark the first time in the program’s history that each and every recipient faces a cut in their benefits.

While these cuts are attributed to the expiration of the ARRA, funding for SNAP was also impacted with passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010.  The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, was pushed by President Obama and the First Lady to improve nutrition, reduce childhood obesity, increase access to school meal programs, and increase the integrity of the school lunch program. Yet these benefits came at the cost of SNAP funding – to the tune of $2.2 billion.

Not surprisingly, Congressional Republicans have also made efforts to cut SNAP funding. Congressman Frank Lucas, Republican from Oklahoma, introduced the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act of 2013 in September, which would reduce funding for SNAP by $39 billion and would force 600,000 recipients to lose benefits over the next nine fiscal years. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Congressman Lucas’ bill would reduce benefits for another 850,000 households by an average of $90 a month.  Additionally, House Republicans’ proposed version of the farm bill, which funds provisions relating to nutrition and agriculture, includes further cuts to SNAP funding. These cuts would reduce SNAP funding by almost $40 billion over the next ten years and would bar nearly three million people from receiving benefits next year alone. House Majority leader Eric Cantor, Republican from Virginia, backs these cuts; called “Welfare Reform 2.0” by supporters.

While House Republicans make efforts to reduce funding for SNAP, demand for the program continues to grow. According to an Agriculture Department report released in September, approximately 14.5% of American households were “food insecure” In 2012. In comparison, from 1998 to 2007 that percentage averaged 11%. At the height of the economic recession, the highest rate of “food insecure” households was only .10% higher at 14.6%. Commenting on the report, Stacy Dean noted that approximately 49 million people in 17.6 million households “lacked access to adequate food at some point in 2012 because they didn’t have enough money or other resources to meet their basic food needs….

Funding for SNAP is not the only issue facing the 14.5% of American households deemed food insecure. In her documentary, ‘A Place at the Table,’ filmmaker Lori Silverbush (wife of renowned chef Tom Collichio) presents a snapshot of the “food insecurity” that millions of American children face each day. The film discusses the inability of families who receive SNAP benefits to provide adequate nutrition to their children. To illustrate this problem, the film features Congressman Jim McGovern, Democrat from Massachusetts, who attempted to live solely off of SNAP benefits for one week. To his own admission he was barely able to survive.

More important than revealing the existing inadequacies with the SNAP program, including the dearth of funding by leaders in Congress, Ms. Silverbush and her team touch upon a fundamental issue plaguing those reliant on SNAP benefits – the food that recipients are able to purchase often lacks real nutritional value. Many SNAP beneficiaries live in “food deserts” where access to fresh food, including fruits and vegetables, is difficult, if not impossible to find. Unable to afford access to nutritional food, families are left feeding their children calorie-rich, nutrition-deficient junk food. As Bill Shore, founder and chief executive of Share Our Strength, points out, “it’s really important to think about hunger and obesity as opposite sides of the same coin.”

All this information begs the important question – if SNAP in its current form does not indeed benefit low-income American families, then who does SNAP benefit? One answer  is the large food corporations like Coca-Cola, Mars, and Kraft who lobby Congress and state legislatures to ensure recipients of SNAP benefits will continue to have access to their goods. In response to a bill proposed by Terry Canales, a Texas state legislator, a lobbyist for the Texas Beverage Association defended his client’s products by arguing that “no clear standards exist for defining foods as good or bad.”

What Mr. Canales may not have realized is that this argument also shines light on the crux of the issue of “food insecurity” – how we as a nation value the impact of nutrition on our nation’s children. Increasing access to SNAP benefits by protecting and increasing the program’s source of funding is only one side of the coin that Congress must address. The other side involves the promulgation of policies aimed at increasing access to healthy and nutritional food through the reduction of food deserts and limits on the types of products available for purchase. Furthermore, Congress must ensure that families receiving SNAP benefits are financially able to purchase nutritional foods at an acceptable cost. The current lack of access to foods with actual nutritional value, coupled with cuts in SNAP funding can only create a disastrous recipe for millions of American children.

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